Turning the Nuclear Triad Into a Quartet

Boeing’s idea of what the long-range strike bomber might look like. (Image: Boeing)

Boeing’s idea of what the long-range strike bomber might look like. (Image: Boeing)

It’s bad enough that the United States has a nuclear triad of land, sea, and air: ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and bombers. But now the Air Force would seek to, in effect, turn that into a quartet. Wait, what’s left after land, sea, and air? Outer space is off limits because the Outer Space Treaty forbids WMD’s in outer space.

Actually, the Air Force seeks to subdivide the bomber classification. In the Washington Post, Walter Pincus, one of its national-security columnists, who is still writing about nuclear weapons at age 82, asks:

At a time of tight defense budgets, why does the Air Force plan to spend billions of extra dollars so that a president 10 or more years from now can have two options if he or she wants to use bombers to attack an enemy with nuclear weapons?

He quotes Robert Scher, the assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities: “We should not be in a position where the only option that we give the president to use the air leg of the triad [strategic bombers, land-based and sub-based missiles] is putting a piloted airplane over enemy airspace to drop a gravity bomb.”


At last Wednesday’s House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee meeting on the fiscal 2016 nuclear weapons budget, Air Force Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence, was asked why we need a nuclear-armed, long-range missile mounted on strike bombers [or, more formally, long-range strike bomber or LRSB] if we also have a penetrating bomber and the B61 nuclear gravity bomb.

He replied that having both a standoff weapon and the direct attack method by dropping bombs “vastly, vastly complicates a potential enemy’s defenses and most importantly . . . gives options that we would perhaps someday wish we had if we don’t pursue this.”

Apparently Gen. Harencak is vice-president of sales, as well. But it’s a tough sell.

The proposed cost of 80 to 100 new LRSBs, at about $550 million each, could exceed $55 billion, although not all of it would be for the nuclear mission. The cost of development and production of a new B61 bomb is estimated at $10 billion, although some money would be allocated to fighter bombers attached to NATO.

Even worse, in an article by David Lerman for Bloomberg, T.X. Hammes of the U.S. National Defense University “predicted that the cost per plane may rise to $3 billion, exceeding that of the B-2.” Meanwhile, Pincus asks: “How many nuclear options does that future president really need to deter a nuclear attack or respond to one?” After all, he

… would also have the option of using some or all of the more than 1,000 nuclear warheads already deployed on U.S. nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — either the 420 that are land-based missiles with one warhead or those on 10 or more strategic submarines, each of which is expected to carry 16 missiles with three to five warheads.

It’s as if policymakers and military planners live and work in a vacuum, oblivious to not only financial crises and the ever-intensifying tug of war for money between defense and social programs, among other things, but also the exponential growth of costs incurred by global warming. In other words, they’re dreaming. Still, we can’t go to sleep on them or they will slip this kind of thing by us.